In India, where the digital divide is already vast, the pandemic had far-reaching effects on the education of children. Save The Children Fund called this the “biggest global education emergency of our lifetime”. The global spread of Covid-19 put 91 per cent of the learners out of schools. Of this strata, the poor and underprivileged kids are inevitably suffering the most and are at the highest risk of not being able to return to classroom schooling. Gaps in access to high-speed internet as well as education are making matters worse for the marginalised kids.
The pandemic has also taken away several sources of livelihood from the under-skilled poor. Unless that changes, the children in such families will not be able to access smartphones to facilitate learning. In India, the government spends only 3 per cent of its GDP on education, despite the recommendation of 6 per cent over 4 decades ago. Save The Children Fund estimates that 320 million kids have been affected in India since only 50 per cent of the population has access to the internet so far.
The widening digital divide
On one hand, there is a large population that is so familiar with emerging technologies; it is like a second language for them. On the other hand, a Teach for India volunteer aptly lamented that most of the kids being taught have had to drop out since they were forced to return to their villages. A vast majority of these kids do not have access to smartphones and their parents aren’t aware enough to be able to support their needs. Moreover, most of these kids have parents who have lost their jobs and therefore cannot afford to live away from home on a meagre to negligible income.
At a time when innovations should have ensured the continuity of education, the lack of preparedness for such a transformation was immediately highlighted. If education must reach the remotest of areas, funds must be allocated to local village authorities for promoting transformative ideas from the bottom up.
Scaling up of distribution networks
Many rights groups and NGOs are going the extra mile to distribute books at homes or set up reading rooms for kids who cannot access online education. e.g., Jharkhand is famous for having speakers perched up on trees so that children can hear their classes. Such initiatives need to be scaled up quickly such that education is not interrupted while the nation’s educational framework digitally transforms itself gradually.
The government’s New Education Policy has been inspired by the thought of driving rapid development through widespread education. Besides the emphasis on using technology in education, it also stresses upon digitisation of the sector. It is focused on creating a conducive environment for EdTechs to promote learning in rural areas by harnessing technological developments.
The NEP also aims to considerably improve the quality of education available in tier II and tier III cities. The budget allocation for education in 2021-22 is a massive Rs 8,100 crore jump over the previous year touching a healthy number of Rs 93,224.31 crore, which comes as music to our ears.
Once unimaginable, technology has made it possible to connect people from anywhere on the planet with one another. It also means that given the right administrative and financial backing, it can be leveraged to ensure that quality education reaches the helpless and the poor.
Bridging the digital divide
The digital gap is more prominent in schools than in institutions for higher education. While the budget provides all the necessary funding, a lot of groundwork is needed in ensuring that quality education is accessible to all irrespective of their financial background, geographic location, and internet connectivity. The way forward involves setting up the necessary infrastructure to facilitate and sustain the process of online education in the long run. Teachers will have to be trained and hired for the job and a relevant curriculum will have to be designed, keeping in mind the needs of the industry. We must also carry out some trials and figure whether the students are ready to adopt the digital ways of learning and examination.
Phasing out of traditional tutoring methods coupled with a shortage of trained teaching staff and insufficient resources to facilitate education have all paved the way for EdTechs to enter the market. EdTech firms are ushering in change with significant contributions through innovations that cause positive disruption. By becoming technology enablers of the education sector, EdTechs are playing a pivotal role in making sure that quality education reaches the remotest and far-flung corners of the nation.
The government has also set its eyes on executing the remote-teaching model which will help EdTech firms to capitalise on the associated opportunities. Improved mediums of connectivity are allowing teachers to connect with any number of students in one go. At a time when the pandemic is wreaking havoc, virtually held interactive sessions are replacing in-person learning and teaching.
The government is also doing its bit by using technology to train and up-skill the teaching staff through its own online portal called DIKSHA. The portal has been created for teachers to remain abreast of the new technological developments which may be deployed to enhance the digital learning/teaching experience.
In the days to come, digital learning will evolve and grow by leaps and bounds. We will witness some stark changes in the way institutions provide education to students as technology continues to advance. The accelerated adoption of the digital learning pedagogy means that this is no temporary phase, and it shall have long-term consequences. A myriad of possibilities is set to emerge in the education sector leading to greater empowerment of the youth – both urban and rural.
-- by Nishant Agarwal, Founder, Proctur